The history of projective testing

3582 words (14 pages) Essay in Psychology

04/05/17 Psychology Reference this

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The origins of projective approaches began in the very early years of human history. Wall cravings of symbols and signs of early ages were found in caves. For centuries, people are fascinated by meanings of paintings, images in clouds and the importance of meaning of dreams (Klopfer, 1973). From a famous story in Exodus in the Bible, Moses’s dreams were thought to be projections of the future. Witches in middle ages inherited the idea and brought it to the ‘golden ages’, which interpretation of visions, dreams, symbols and signs have become widely known measures. Until late 18th century to early 19th century, the large scale witch-hunt has brought the witches’ interpretation of ‘signs’ to an end.

Part 1

The modern projective approaches started to flourish at late 19th century when Francis Galton was obsessed with finding methods to measure intellect. Before Galton, there was no obvious sign of projective measurements in the psychological world. In early 19th century, the field was largely influenced by the study of Psychophysics, which was founded by Ernst Weber. The experiment focused on finding just noticeable difference (j.n.d.). Inspired by him, Wilhelm Wundt started his own laboratory in 1879 in Leizig, Germany to for experimental psychology (Rieber, 2001).

At the same time, Sir Francis Galton in England started the movement of eugenics in America. He pioneered projective measurements by trials of word association method to measure intelligence. For each stimulus word, Galton (1879) gave four seconds to think of any associated words as many as possible. However, he failed to prove the link between intelligence and the number of words associated (Simonton, 2003).

Galton’s work in word association was continued by Wundt and Kraepelin (Wundt’s student). Wundt and his students intended to measure the time-relation between the stimulus and the respond word in experiments of word association (Rieber, 2001). They proceeded to work out the uniform presentation of the stimulus to a visual form, instead of auditory form adopted by Galton. Kraepelin (1892) extended his work to application in clinical psychology. He applied the association method to people that are subjected to effects of fatigue, hunger and other disturbing symptoms (Murphy & Kl├╝ver, 1928).

Galton’s work had also influenced another great psychologist, Carl Jung, who brought projective testing techniques into fruition. Jung’s word association test was the first one who formulated a standardized projective test. The test consisted of 1000 stimulus words. Subjects had to give response of the first word come in mind as fast as possible. According to Jung (1910), those who have emotional disturbance could be characterized as having “conmplexes”. An example would be “Inferiority Complex”. Jung believed that they would have significant delay in responding to the stimuli in the word association test (Jung, 1910).

The projective movement moved a large step in the 1920s. Hermann Rorschach (1921) published his famous work Psychodiagnotik, concluding the researches he did earlier in 1916. He was a Jungian and followed the psychoanalytic viewpoint that the innermost conflicts might be disclosed unconsciously when responding to ambiguous stimuli. He also tried to experiment the method of inkblots to predict whether a person would be an introvert or an extrovert. Rorschach believed essential personality dimensions can be revealed through the response to the inkblots (Rorschach, 1951).

However, Rorschach had only developed 10 sets of inkblots test. He died one year after the publication of his work. Many researches at that time did researches on the Rorschach test. In 1920s, there were only 38 entries was about the Rorschach technique. The figure rose to more than 200 in 1930s. The style and structure of responses were emphasized in the early work of the Rorschach technique, and was defined as “scores”. The “sign” approach was adopted later and many works from various psychologists worked hard on it. For example, Beck (1938) worked on signs of schizophrenia, Piotrowski (1937) on signs of organic brain damage. However, the test was criticized by Fosberg (1938) which he regarded the signs were overlapping. After then, the study on the Rorschach test mainly focused on some special scales of development and ego strength (Munger, 2003).

After the work of Rorschach was first published, two major developments were made in the United States and Europe respectively. Murray and Morgan (1935) developed the innovative Thematic Apperception Test in 1938 in USA. Nearly the same time, Szondi developed his own test in 1937 in Europe (Munger, 2003).

The psychoanalytic approach had dominated projective studies in America for some years. Whereas the Rorschach test was applied on abnormal subjects at first, Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) aimed at studying normal personality to fill the gap. The TAT consisted of a set of pictures showing one or more persons with ambiguous interaction. Test subjects were required to make up a story about the picture showed to them. The story was expected to be as dramatic as possible, to unveil the underlying personality needs, like achievement and companion (Klopfer, 1973; Munger, 2003).

On the other side, Szondi test had gained its popularity in Europe. The test was set based on the theory of receive genes. He believed that personality traits were transferred by the recessive gene and emotional disorders were caused by having double recessive genes. The test included 48 photographs of mentally ill patients with eight categories. Subjects were required to choose two pictures that they liked most, and two that they disliked most. Persons that preferred the same type of pictures in the six set were thought to have that kind of mental disorder. However, the Szondi test faded shortly due to problems in validity (Munger, 2003).

Sentence completion technique had also flourished in 1920s, brought into concern in 1950s. A stem of sentence was given and the second part was free to fill in. An example would be “I am happy with______” (Nashat, 2010). This type of tests was challenged for its difficulty in interpretation and scoring (Gregory, 2011). Developing a more standardized test seemed to be important to the field.

Therefore, another approach of projective tests would be expressed drawings. It was first started by Goodenough and Harris. They developed the Goodenough-Harris Test in 1930s as a supplemental measure of intelligence. Buck (1949) introduced the House-Tree-Person Test, which should consist of drawings of a house, a tree and some persons. This test was much more organised than the previous ones. Later, Karen Machover (1949) modified the Goodenough-Harris Test and developed it as a personality assessment, which was the Draw-A-Person Test. Subjects have to draw a man, and woman and themselves in the picture. A guidebook was published to provide detailed guidelines to interpret the features presented in the picture (Gregory, 2011).

Projective testing techniques in history can mainly divide into 4 types, which are association techniques, construction techniques, expression techniques and completion techniques (Gregory, 2011). Examples of the are the Rorschach Inkblot test, Thematic Apperception Test, Draw-A-Person Test and Sentence Completion Test respectively. Although they are somewhat accepted, but many still claim doubts on the reliability and validity. Furthermore, the domination of behaviourism in America in 1920-1950, followed by rise of cognitive psychology, driven the sights of people away from the projective tests (Klopfer, 1973). In contrast, objective techniques of personality assessment were much more widely used, such as the Big Five and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). Many preferred them as they provide more empirical evidence in researches and have higher validity.

The applications of projective techniques in the 21st century are mainly used in forensic psychology and clinical assessment of children. Projective tests are useful to investigation in abuse cases. Also, owing to the mental capability, children may not able express freely, nor answer to complicated questions questioned-form assessment. Projective tests are found to be useful especially in such cases. (y?)

Part 2

In the second part, biographical sketches of Hermann Rorschach and Henry Murray will be included. After deep analyses, the two psychologists are found to have the greatest contribution to projective testing.

Hermann Rorschach

Hermann Rorschach (1884-1922) was the developer of Rorschach inkblot test. It was one of the most widely used projective tests. The test requires the subject to determine what he sees in a series of inkblots. Rorschach believed the test can find out the amount of introversion or extroversion that he possesses, and also provide clues about emotions and intelligence. Wide applications have been put on the test recently, such as child development groups, army and employers (Pichot, 1984, Rorschach, 1951).

Rorschach was born in Zunrich, Switzerland. He spent his early years with his younger siblings in Schaffhausen. His father was an art teacher, who inspired him the use of inkblots and the meaning behind them. Originally, he planned to study natural sciences, but the death of his father turned him to study medicine (Pichot, 1984; Huffman, 2008; Gregory, 2011).

Rorschach studied at a number of medical schools in Neuenburg, Berne, Berlin in Germany, and completed his degree back in Zunrich after 5 years in 1910. He was the top student of Eugene Bleuler, a famous psychiatrist in Zunrich who had notable contributions in understanding mental illness. He was given chances to work at the psychiatric ward at the university’s hospital while studying, in which he developed his interest to the field. He took his residency at Munsterlingen, Switzerland, and married a Russian colleague he met there in 1910 (Rorschach, 1951).

Rorschach got his Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Zurich in 1912. He worked as an assistant physician of the insane asylum in Switzerland for 1 year, who then became a private sanatorium in Moscow in 1913. One year later, he moved back to Switzerland. He worked first in Waldau Mental Hospital in Bern, then in Krombach Mental Hospital in Appenzell, Switzerland. He achieved as a leading psychiatrist in Switzerland and was elected as president of the Swiss Psychoanalytic Society in 1919. He published a new system of diagnostic test in his book Psychodiagnostik (1921). Sadly, Rorschach died one year after his publication (Gregory, 2011).

Although the psychologist had a short life span, his contribution to projective techniques was very much indeed. He was the major developer of the Rorschach inkblot test. In fact, he started his research as early as 1911. He started by some small scale experiments with schoolchildren when he was studying his Doctor’s Degree of Medicine at University of Zurich. At that time, there were already some experiments done on inkblots. For example, Alfred Binet had done an experiment on inkblots as a creativity test, and Justinus Kerner was said to have composed a poem on each random inkblot he produced (Pichot, 1984). However, there was a lack of a systematic test on inkblots. Rorschach saw the need of developing the test in a systematic way, and he worked on it for several years. He invented a systematic and complicated scoring system on the inkblot test in his book Psychodiagnostik (1921). This is one of his major contributions to projective testing (Rorschach, 1951).

The interpretation of the inkblots was very much influenced by the psychoanalysts’ point of view (Rorschach, 1951). Rorschach adopted Freud’s concept of the presence of unconsciousness and the libido forces inside a person. Furthermore, he was a big follower of Jung, and read a lot of his works about complex, the universal inner words (collective unconsciousness) and the dimension of introversion and extraversion of personality. He tried to find out the type of the person by his scoring system, and identify other personality features of the person by the test. He also believed the test can apply in psychopathology, that it can reveal the pathogenic suppressions, the fixation of libido in the realm of introversion (Rorschach, 1951).

Jung had tried the projective testing method himself with the word association test. However, Rorschach had moved projective testing methods to a new era, by visualizing the content. He moved a step forward form Jung and Freud. This should be considered a large breakthrough in the history of projective testing (Gregory, 2011).

Although he did not finish his research due to his sudden death, the Rorschach inkblot test inspired many to work on projective testing. At first, his work did not gain much attention as psychiatrist did not agree that personality can be tested. He planned to revise the test and provide more useful interpretation to Psychoanalytic Society, but he could not finish it. His colleagues continued the research for him. His innovative idea of projective testing is believed to have opened the door to psychological and personality testing (Rorschach, 1951).

Until now, the Rorschach inkblot test is used in some situations. The inkblot test is not used as an absolute diagnosis, but potential traits or problems. Rorschach’s test still shares a value in psychological testing nowadays.

List of Major Work

Rorschach, H. (1921). Psychodiagnotik.

Henry Murray

Henry Alexander Murray (1893-1988) was the co-developer of the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), with Christiana Morgan at Harvard University. He was a pioneer in the study of personality psychology who emphasized ‘personology’. He had worked at Harvard Psychological Clinic since 1928, and became a professor of Psychology and Social Relations until his retirement in 1962. Murray had inspired many students, trained many professionals and aroused many’s interest towards personality psychology that has shaped the development of it for decades.

Murray was born in New York City in 1893. His father was a banker and his mother was listed as a social register. He came from a wealthy family with an elder sister and a younger brother. He had a warm relationship with his father but not his mother. He thought his mother treated his brother and sister better than him, which he was only getting the ‘third-most’ proportion to her mother’s love. This had made him sensitize to other’s sufferings and might have influenced him to study medicine and psychotherapies eventually.

Murray was originally a History student. He went to Harvard College from 1911 to 1915. He was not a diligent student at that time, but he was quite active in social organizations. He was one of the members of Harvard crew team and the social service organisation at Harvard at his times. He met his wife, Josephine Rantoul, in the final crew race against Yale. The only exposure to psychology in his study was two lectures by Hugo M├╝nsterberg on the senses.

From 1914-1915, Murray went to the medical school in Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, and graduated with first class honours. To get into depth of the underlying science, Murray studied for Master’s degree in Biology at Columbia, and obtained a PhD in Physiological Chemistry from Cambridge University in 1927.

After graduation in medicine and completing his surgical internship in 1922, he accepted the fellowship of Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research to study eggs and embryos. At his work, he came across two extreme viewpoints of mechanism and holism, which was believed to have opened the door for him to read Jung’s work of Psychological Types. He got an inspiring answer from the book. In addition, he had a few meetings with Jung and even analysed by him. He then started to question about personality of human, which had eventually moved him to the field of psychology through a very long way.

Murray worked as a research fellow at The Harvard Psychological Clinic in abnormal psychology from 1926, and became the director in 1928. Murray had a great vision in psychology and also the role of the clinic in the psychological field. Murray achieved as an associate professor in 1937 and a professor of clinical psychology in 1948. He led the school to become perhaps the greatest advancement in learning and researching in Psychology and developed the greatest school of Psychology at Harvard.

Murray opposed the view of studying mental process by introspection and sensing elements. He was greatly influenced by the psychoanalysts like Freud and Jung, and introduced it the Harvard curriculum. However, Murray felt that the Freudians only emphasized on sex and aggression. He proposed that there are much more needs in human nature, including biological needs, such as food, water and sex; and psychological needs, such as companion, dominance and achievement needs.

Another contribution from him was the invention of the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) (1935). He co-developed the test with a colleague, Christina Morgan, at Harvard University. The TAT was a series of drawings with ambiguous meanings. Some examples were a boy turning away from a girl that is lying in bed, a boy looking at a violin on a table. Subjects had to tell a story about the picture, about what was happening, why did it happen and what will happen in the future. The test aimed at reveal the unconscious fantasies of the person, so as to determine the inner feelings, emotions related to experiences, actions, neuroticism and creativity.

In his work Explorations in Personality (1938), he put a lot of effort investigating the scientific methods of studying personality psychology, which he called it ‘personology’. However, Murray mad and left Harvard from 1938-1941 due to arguments with other staff at the university.

During the World War II, Murray was admitted to the army as a lieutenant colonel. In 1943, he wrote a personality analysis on Adolf Hitler in the request of Office of Strategic Services. After the War, Murray changed his mind of the value of life and turned his view in personality to an interaction with society and culture. He wanted to find out the reasons for the war and how could another world war be prevented. He resigned from Harvard in 1945, but was involved in the formation of the new Department of Social Relations, eventually became a professor in 1950 of the newly formed department and remained there until his retirement in 1962. He co-edited some great works in studying of social relations, such as Personality in Nature, Society, and Culture (Kluckhohn and Murray, 1948). Murray was best known for his motivational system of social needs. Behaviour was the function of needs, such as achievement and the ‘press’ of the environment. Murray died from pneumonia at the age of 95 in 1988.

Murray has devoted the whole life in researching in personality psychology and made great contributions in the development of it. As stated above, he was the co-developer of the TAT. When comparing the TAT with the Rorschach test, the TAT seemed to have a richer content than the Rorschach. Rorschach test consists of the interpretation of one card, and the subjects are just required to relate the shape of the inkblot to one object. For TAT, the subjects not only have to describe the physical appearance of the persons or the objects, but also the relationship between them, so that they can form a sensible story. The clinicians can get more clues about the subjects’ emotions, inner motives or the existence of trauma. The TAT is an advancement of projective techniques.

Apart from that, the fame of Murray at Harvard had gained fame for ‘personology’ and also projective testing. In the first half of his life (before World War II), he had led the psychological academic world shifted to the study of personality psychology. Together with the TAT as a testing measurement, personality psychology had experienced its golden years from 1930-1940 in America. Compared to the times that Rorschach published his work in Europe, the TAT gained much more attention among scholars.

At a broader sense, Murray made significant contribution to the development of psychology and personality psychology. Due to the education background of Murray (MD in Biology; PhD in Physiological Chemistry), he was able to expand the boundary of experimental psychology so that it can include the study of lives and personality. Murray had given a series of lectures at Michigan State University in 1978. At the same year, the university set up an annual “Henry A. Award” for those who have great contributions to the study of personality and lives. That was a great honour of the psychological world.

Murray had also influenced a lot of people. Many were influenced by his works and personality, for example, Erik Erikson who extended the research in children, and published Childhood and Society (1950). He has also aroused many people’s interest in developing personality assessment, like MMPI. But among all of them, no one had ever had more influence in history (Wiggins, 2003).

List of Major Works

Murray, H. A. (1938). Explorations in Personality. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Murray, H. A. (1940). What should psychologists do about psychoanalysis? Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 35, 150-175.

OSS Assessment Staff. (1948). Assessment of Men: Selection of Personnel for the Office of Strategic Service. New York, NY: Rinehart.

Murray, Henry A. and Clyde Kluckhohn. (1953) Personality in Nature, Society, and Culture. New York, NY: Knopf.


From the history of projective testing, it can be seen there are many debates and controversies regarding the test itself or its basis. It all depends on who is talking about it. Some of the psychologists accept it as a standard test, while some remain sceptical about projective tests. The popularity in the past might have shown its usefulness in providing insights in clinical practice. Projective testing is likely to continue its popularity in unveiling the subjects’ intention, past experiences and personality. It is looking forward for psychologists to organise the test and the data in a systematic way.

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